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Lifestyle Changes May Ease Heart, Stroke Risk

  • Carol Pearson

After someone has a heart attack or stroke, doctors usually recommend changes in lifestyle - like losing weight, exercising or stopping smoking. A new study looked at people around the world to see if they followed their doctors' advice.

We hear the message about how to live a healthy life so much, it's hard to imagine there's anyone who hasn't heard it.

"Heart disease is preventable," said Dr. Patrice Desvigne Nickens, with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, a part of the National Institutes of Health. "Healthy lifestyles can reduce risks."

Dr. Desvigne-Nickens said there are three key elements to living a healthy life. “Don’t smoke, maintain a healthy weight, exercise,” she stated.

Ignoring even one of these increases the risk for cardiovascular disease, which includes heart attack and stroke, the number one killer around the world.

So Canadian researcher Koon Teo at Ontario's Hamilton General Hospital wanted to see if people changed their lifestyle after one of these events. He followed patients in high, middle and low-income countries.

"People who had heart disease or stroke, about a fifth of them, still continued to smoke and only a third of people had regular physical activities," he explained. "Just about two-fifths of them ate what we determine as a healthy diet."

And it didn't seem to matter where they lived.

"The low-income countries had the worst diet, but if you look at people from high income countries, they did not do that much better," Koon Teo said.

Overall, only about four percent of the patients who participated in the study followed the recommendations.

"All countries need to look at this finding to try to improve and close the gap about healthy living, particularly in people who had already had the stroke or a heart attack," Koon Teo added.

National and international efforts to get people to monitor their blood pressure and reduce salt consumption are gaining momentum. Both reduce the risk for heart attack or stroke. In the U.S., Janet Wright, of the Million Hearts campaign, gives this advice.

"Make one small change to your health and do it daily," she asserted. "It could be adding a fruit or a vegetable. It could be building your way up to 150 minutes of exercise each week."

The Cleveland Clinic has a program for its employees that has helped them lead healthier lives.

"The key is to start. Buy a pedometer [device that measures the number of steps someone takes], record it daily," explained Dr. Michael Roizen, Cleveland Clinc. "Try to walk 10,000 steps a day."

And if you take medication for high blood pressure, take it as prescribed.

"Every day of an uncontrolled blood pressure is damaging the heart, the kidneys, the eyes and all of the blood vessels putting the individual at high risk for heart attack and stroke," Wright stated.

These experts stress that the power to prevent heart attack or stroke is in your hands. Professor Teo's study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.